November 12, 2017

There are no Normal People

The concept of "normal people" is a threat to all of us, including -- of course -- transgender, non-binary and queer people. 

Time for a closer look!

There are no normal people. Seriously!

If you look at any distribution of human traits, abilities, interests, looks or mannerisms you will probably never find one person that is the average of them all, and if you do, that person is so rare that he or she is abnormal.

The median line in this figure has no width in reality. It is purely a theoretical construct, useful for statistics and research but with no counterpart out in the real world.

Illustration by lamnee.
"But hey, Jack, wait a minute!" you might say. "All of us consider 'normal' to be a broader area than that. Normalcy is rather something like this section of the bell curve."

Sure, but that is also a theoretical construct. In statistics normalcy may be defined as the area between +1 and -1 (the number is not important here, but it equals the marked area in the figure above), equalling 68 percent of a sample. 

Used to measure people, that would make 68% of us normal. 

Men are taller than women, right?  Well, no, not really. My wife and I have visited Asian countries a few times, and Sally can look down at the local men most of the time. This is all relative, really.

As Augustin Fuentes points out in an article over at Psychology Today: If you actually go out and select thousands of individual people at random and just look at their heights in the absence of any other data, you are going to be able to accurately determine their sex by their height alone only about 30 percent of the time.

Normal means what my tribe thinks is right

But again, we are talking about statistics here, not what the people around us consider normal. Since the distribution of traits, abilities, behaviors and what not will vary between groups, cultures, countries and historical epochs, statistics cannot be used to define what is normal in the popular sense of the word: What is right and righteous.

And why should only 68 percent be considered "normal", and not 69 percent or 35 percent? The number seems pretty arbitrary to me.

Moreover, there is a lot of behavior within that section of the bell curve that is considered bad, not limited to cheating and lying. So being "normal" is not about statistical averages, even if the "normalites"  and the traditionalists would like you to thinks so.

"He is not normal!" "She is a weirdo!" "They are not like us!" "They are not real Americans!" 

As soon as people start talking about "normal" in this way, you realize that they are not referring to the real world, but an imaginary world, the world as it should be, normally defined by a pretty narrow understanding of what their parents have told them, or their friends. 

Normal is basically what your own tribe think is safe and predictable. It is a word people use to police and control others.

Transgender people have to be suppressed, because their very existence threaten the local tribe's view of "normal".

The laws of nature

A similar word is "natural", which refers to some God given (or Nature given) law that governs the universe. 

"Gay sex is unnatural." means that gay men are violating the laws of nature. That's why they are "abnormal". 

Indeed, just recently a Kenyan official argued that the same-sex activity observed among local lions was caused by them imitating gay men. He argued that the lions should be separated and given counceling. 

The truth is, of course, that there is a lot of same-sex activity among animals. Gay love is  natural, as is gender variance, but being "normal" is not really about nature, but about people's need to control a far too big world. The chaos scares them so they redefine normal to make themselves believe that the world can be tamed.

Normal is relative

Normal is also relative. People are in general much more flexible as regards diversity when it comes to members of their own tribe, as compared to others. A masculine straight woman is normally accepted. "She is the one with the trousers in that family, he, he..." 

But if a woman from another tribe displays masculinity, it is a sign of some kind of abnormal sickness. A masculine lesbian woman is a threat, and therefore abnormal.

A woman must work twice as hard as a man to get ahead in a male dominated world. A Muslim terrorist is a terrorist because he is a Muslim, proving that all Muslims are abnormal. A white Christian male terrorist is insane, confirming the truth that normal white people are never terrorists.

Note also how the real innovators of the world -- the great artists, the brilliant scientists and the good leaders of the world -- live out there on the long tail of the curve. They are not normal, so they have to be redefined as "super-normal" or the very best of the "normalites".

Humanize the marginalized!

You cannot win, can you?

Hm, you can actually, but not by making all people understand the stupidity of the concept of normalcy. It seems you have to expand the concept of normal to encompass more people if you want to make this a more tolerant world.

The increasing acceptance of gay marriage is the end result of increased visibility of gay and lesbian people. If you know gay people, you are much less likely to think of them as abnormal perverts. 

To battle bigotry you have to humanize trans people, and make the "normalites" understand that they are people too.


  1. Very interesting article, Jack, thank you.

    “Normal” with respect to humans, means diversity. As you said, we are all different in many ways. We also share many commonalities. Most of us have brains, for example. (Except for the current WH occupant,)

    To be transgender is to simply be examples of normal human diversity. Simple as that.

    Yesterday I walked around Lake Washington with a friend, who happens to be lesbian. I was proud to be wearing leggings and my new sweatshirt dress. Nice and cozy. As blacks, gays, and lesbians did before us, transgender people must be seen and heard to be recognized and accepted. Fortunately where I live that’s quite normal.

    Give my best to Sally.

  2. humans lie on a distribution curve and as Kinsey proved when he released his two books on male and female sexuality in the late 1940's there is no such thing as normal human sexual activity either. We all bought into false models that told us how to look and behave but when you looked beneath the surface something starkly different lurked underneath.

    The key for transgender people is to come out of hiding and show the world that we are part of that statistical whole in that we may not be numerous as a percentage but there are enough of us around that we are not exactly rare occurrences or outliers.

  3. //“Normal” with respect to humans, means diversity.//

    The more I learn about animals -- and especially complex organisms -- the more I believe that this applies to them, as well. I have known quite a few dogs and cats in my life, and I see as much diversity in personality there as among my human friends. More recent research seems to confirm this impression.

    Reductionistic evolutionary theories seem to operate with some perfect male and perfect female behavior, defined as "evolutionary fitness". The fact is rather that diversity improves a species ability to survive under changing conditions.


    Isn't it fascinating to see how the backlash against Kinsey in psychiatric and psychology circles has caused people to forget this obvious fact? Science is not always and "objective" and "disinterested" endeavour.

  4. This is unfortunately very true Jack and if you examine the entire history of science you will see the footprints of the church and other groups try and influence its purity. Ultimately they fail but it's not for lack of trying.

  5. I loved your approach to 'normal'! Well done. Indeed, the problem is that this word has a precise meaning in mathematics, and a vague and ambiguous usage in sociological contexts, where it means... nothing.

    It would actually be more intellectually honest to say that the idealised, platonic image that society (or more precisely, the tribe, as you so well put it) creates in a specific context (in this case: gender and sex issues) is simply a stereotype — not 'normal', but rather an almost-impossible-to-achieve goal that is enforced by society in terms of behaviour, appearance, and so forth.

    Being European, I still struggle with several concepts of American politics and general thought; I have to admit I have been naïve and thought that many political and sociological terms, within the same contexts, would be widespread across the Atlantic. But clearly this is not the case, and taking the example from recent US politics ('recent' at the date I post this comment, of course!), people in Alabama, claiming themselves to be Christian and following the rules allegedly set up in the Bible, are more prone to vote for a child molester than for a Democrat. This completely baffled me, since I could not envision how a self-proclaimed 'Christian' could even accept the notion that someone could openly be involved in sexual harassment of children; in the same way, it was totally baffling to see very Christian Evangelicals eager to vote for president a man who was in his third marriage and is eager to harass anyone who is female and even boast publicly about it; such behaviour being perfectly tolerated by so-called 'Christian Republicans', while, say, accepting trans people in the armed force is not tolerated. In other words: my (European) concept of what means to be 'Christian' has absolutely nothing to do with what Republicans consider their 'normalcy' to be; so-called 'conservative values', as the Republicans defend, have nothing to do with what we would call 'conservative' in Europe (regarding family, at least; we might agree with economical issues).

    This example shows to me how 'normal' in the US is so different from 'normal' in, say, my own country; in other words: the stereotype of a man or a woman for an Alabamian citizen who votes Republican has little to do with the stereotypes that would be common in my own country (even if there would naturally be many things in common). For instance, those around here who claim to be 'conservative' and are of a Christian (usually Catholic) persuasion would probably agree that 'transgender' or 'homosexual' is a stereotype not part of their vision of society (and thus, for them, these are behaviours resulting from choice), but a divorced man, or a sexual predator (especially a child molester!) would be a far worse transgression of that stereotype and utterly untolerated. In other words: you cannot claim to be 'Christian' and be divorced/a sexual predator at the same time.

    My point here is that 'normal' clearly changes across culture boundaries (as it should be the case, if we think about what 'normal' means for tribal hunter-gatherers in pre-civilisation times); when we talk about 'stereotypes', by contrast, we tend to describe their properties and characteristics (even if the word 'stereotype' is loaded with negative connotations, while 'normal' isn't, of course).

  6. I experience the same thing, when looking at American politics. Norwegian Conservative politicians and American "Conservatives" have very little in common. In fact, I think some of the American extremists would dismiss the Norwegian Conservatives as "Cultural Marxists" or whatever nonsense word they come up with next.

    As far as the Roy Moore crowd goes, none of my Christian friends would consider them Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. We should keep in mind though, that a lot of American Christians feel the same. Maybe the main divide does not go across the Atlantic, but inside the US: coast against inland.

    Anyway, I agree. Normalcy, in the social and cultural sense, is all about stereotypes.


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